Everyone who has so much as seen a newspaper over the last decade knows that 3D printing has been one of the the biggest technology media frenzies for a long time. But in reality, it’s been around for over 30 years, and despite the market growing at over 20% per year, the use of 3D printers has yet to become commonplace.
‘I can print anything I want, at home, with just a computer, from my bed?’ – sounds like a great deal to a bed dwelling species such as ours, so what on earth is holding us back from having a 3D printer in every home? If these really are the enablers of the 4th industrial revolution, why isn’t every single factory in the UK being stripped inside out and replaced with hundreds of printing machines?
1. It’s damn difficult to get right
You could be forgiven for thinking 3D printing is a brand new concept, only recently enabled by technological advancements but the truth is somewhat different. 3D printing has been around all the way back since the 1980s, when Charles Hull developed the first ever working 3D printer in 1984 with hugely-successful 3D printing company 3D Systems, who were then granted a patent for the first industrial machine in 1986.
After trying a number of different 3D printing methods, Scott Crump, co-founded a second hugely-successful 3D printing company, Stratysys. Mr Crump (relax, it’s a C not a T) came up with a gamechanging way of doing 3D printing, called Fused Deposition Modelling (FDM).
2. Scott Crump’s patent delayed progress by 20 years
The FDM process involves simply extruding a reel of filament through the printer nozzle, melting it and then depositing it in the right place. The filament solidifies and another layer can then be printed on top, and this is repeated until the entire product is formed.
On the whole, this building up of dispensed filament makes FDM comparably cheaper, less messy and more convenient as you don’t need a huge vat of anything, although admittedly at the expense of quality – it’s harder to build up bits of solid filament in space than it is to zap areas of liquid.
Scott Crump patented his invention in 1989, and so the process was completely protected until the patent eventually expired in 2009. When the patent expiry hit, companies like RepRap and Makerbot realised they were now free to make home consumer friendly printers, which could be small, relatively cheap and clean. These could be plonked straight onto a user’s desk, and after plugging in a computer, could be printing out a part in minutes. The price of 3D printing dropped by 2 orders of magnitude following the patent expiry.
These companies proved you could make 3D printing technology accessible to the general public and it’s fair to say this got the media pretty excited about the technology, and as a result, a huge amount of hype followed in recent years.
3. The 3D Printing market is two faced
There are two very different markets for 3D printing technology, with the industrial market being around for many years but the consumer market (the one that the general public actually care about) only being accessed recently through this revolution of cheap, FDM printers.
We can check out the Gartner Hype Cycle to gauge the maturity of different 3D printing applications in both markets. The recent media frenzy focusses on applications in the ‘peak of inflated expectations’, that are still in very early days, such as 3D bio-printing and printing of consumable products- this is the stuff we read about in the press. But what we can see is that actually, there’s a fair few 3D printing technologies that have been around for years sitting on the plateau of productivity and thus being used for useful things – however, this is mainly in industry rather than for consumers. Just think of 3D printing for prototyping for example, which is an extremely wide use of the technology in industries such as automobile manufacture – and the process has been ingrained into their operations since the late 80s.
4. They’re still pretty expensive
The ‘low-cost’ FDM 3D printers have enabled the growth of the consumer market. Although, by low cost, we don’t mean a few bucks, more like a few hundred dollars, and that’s without the replacement filament which can be $20 for a reel. One of the most basic models on the market is the Printrbot play, a $400 dollar printer targeted at the education sector – and with a print body capable of a build half the size of your hand, we’re struggling to see many other things it could be used for anyway! So here’s the price issue – this isn’t exactly a throw-away amount of money for most households (or schools). However, compared to the badass industrial jobs such as the Stratysys Fortus 900 (roughly $200,000), it’s still a pretty good steal.
5. You need some amount of technical know how
3D printing isn’t just about the printer itself – it’s an ecosystem of software, hardware and build materials that all have to work together and so it’s not always as simple as just hitting ‘print’ like we do on our inkjets at home.
Although we’ve talked about gun blueprints being made openly available online, deciphering these into a printable file requires a level of understanding of the technology and the right software installation for your printer, the correct materials for a specific print and more. And unless you’re a pro at CAD (Computer Aided Design), you’re going to need to find a file for the object you want to print. You might have epic paint skills, but could you knock these crazy 3D printed shoes up on a computer?
6. A watched model never prints…
Even if you do manage to cash in for a printer, understand the software and get your hands on a CAD file, you’d better be prepared to be patient if you want to build anything of significant size. Let’s take for example, the world famous MakerBot. Printing is by no means an instantaneous process, and even these relatively quick machines usually take between 2-8 hours to produce a part – although that’s still a hell of a lot quicker than ordering a part from halfway across the country.
Alternatively, if you’re not that patient, cool sites such as Shapeways will take your designs and print them for you.
7. Quality, not quantity – or neither?
Currently, the quality and usefulness of parts produced by 3D printers is hugely variable.
High-end industrial machines such as the Objet Connex3 can print layers as small as 20 microns (that’s 50 layers per millimeter). Thinner layers means better surface finish and smoother shapes.
It’s not only the thickness of the layers that matters, but also the way the layers are laid down. Most conventional manufacturing materials have isotropic properties, meaning that whichever way you push or pull them, they behave the same. However 3D printing relies on putting down layers then sticking another layer to the top somehow, and thus these boundaries between layers can generate planes of weakness.
Straining a part across these planes leads to lower failure stress depending on which direction you apply force, and thus parts have non-isotropic and generally unpredictable properties. This is definitely something to consider if you’re putting it into a high-stress environment such as an aeroplane!
8. Life support
Another big downside for quality is support material. Imagine you are printing this cute dog here:
That’s great, but answer this: if you are a 3D printer trying to build this from the bottom up, how do you get that dog’s nose to balance in thin air? In reality, you need several temporary support layers built up underneath to give the dog’s nose a starting point. This then has to be chopped away at the end of the printing process.
Source: University of Queensland
Hence while 3D printing might sound like a boon from above, it actually wastes a lot of material.
9. Material world
To create useful things we need machines that can work with a huge variety of materials, but according to 3D printer material database Senvol, there’s only currently about 760 printable materials. Even among thermoplastics, the go-to-material for 3D printing, the vast majority of different polymers are not yet printable.
In the past, issues have also arisen around the procurement of 3D printer-ready materials. The big industrial companies often exercise business models that ‘lock customers in’ through selling printers only compatible with their own printer materials. Thankfully, open sourcing of material is improving, especially in the consumer market which is helping to drive prices down.
10. A perfect end to a non-perfect print
Finally, what happens if you pop your printer on, leave it for 8 hours, come back and discover you totally screwed it up by forgetting to clean the print nozzle and your part is just a pile of melted plastic? And what happens to all that chopped-off support material every time you print off a part?
The point is, the nature of 3D printing as a novel technology means that currently there’s a lot of potential for inefficient usage and waste. Thankfully companies like Filabot and Cambridge-based Reelcycle therefore saw the need to address the disposal options for 3D printed parts. Their desktop devices crush up old parts into tiny pellets, melt them together and extrude them back into FDM filaments which can be popped straight into a Makerbot for example, and used to make new parts.
3D printing screw ups sometimes look so interesting that, far from sending them off to be melted and remoulded, they are considered art. Many of us less versed in the appreciation of modern art have seen a painting and thought “I could have done that by mistake,” this artform is actually literally that – a mistake.
So is 3D printing really the gateway to the future? YES, and there is huge potential for it to revolutionise the way we make things. But there’s still a few key challenges that must be overcome before it can become an integral part of everyday life. So we can’t print ourselves that midnight pizza from our bed just yet, but we sure as hell can print a bunch of other seriously cool and useful stuff right now.
This article is part three of a four part series on 3D printing. Part 1 introduces what 3D and 4D printing are. Part 2 discusses the ethical impacts of 3D printing – how do we control 3D printed weapons? Check back later for part 4.